Thursday, June 30, 2016

Pathfinders: How would socialism deal with waste and pollution? (2005)

The Pathfinders Column from the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

How would socialism deal with waste and pollution?

Profit-driven production in capitalism generates huge quantities of waste while recycling technologies have been slow to get started and the financial advantage of ignoring the problem continues to inform every level of production from car-plants to Kyoto. The rational capitalist calculation includes costs for energy (electricity, labour etc) and storage but not for waste and environmental damage nor for longer term sustainability. Usage-driven production in a socialist society would prioritise best quality production over cheap competitive rollout since by extending the lifetime and durability of goods this would minimize the environmental footprint. In addition it would inevitably set far greater store on minimizing or eliminating useless or dangerous by-products, because these would also represent longer-term energy costs.

The effort to control pollution levels in capitalism is a game in which by far the best  individual strategy is to continue polluting, while collective responsibility is a financially damaging option. Moreover, with oil companies increasingly struggling to find new oil reserves to replace those used up and ominous pressure mounting on those oil states not yet colonized by the USA, the perfect solution would be to find a way to turn waste into oil.

And that’s just what they’re doing in Carthage, Missouri (Focus, Aug 2004). Cars, houses and factories in Carthage are being fuelled from a clean oil that is produced by the Thermal Conversion Process, a huge waste-gobbler that can take any type of carbon waste including animal remains, car tyres, old computers and human sewage and within half an hour turn it into useful fertilizer minerals, carbon charcoal and oil. And unlike many energy-producing methods which use more energy than they produce, the TCP uses just 15 units of energy to 85 produced. Since the process only reuses already above-ground carbon it does not add permanently to existing carbon levels.

So what’s the catch? Lack of an obvious profit, of course. Says Dr Paul Horsnell, Head of Energy Research at investment bank Barclays Capital: “To transport and process all the waste, pay the energy costs, provide for the capital costs and still make a profit does look difficult at first sight. By comparison, fossil fuel oil is actually pretty cheap.” Despite this, its supporters are enthusiastic, claiming that processing all agricultural waste alone would remove the need for the USA to import any oil at all. Europe has shown interest and there are plans for new plants in Colorado and Italy. However the likelihood is that, unmoved by its clear environmental advantages, capitalism will only resort to this technology once it has run out of cheap and dirty options. For a socialist society bent on recycling waste and reducing oil dependency, things might be very different, with small TCP plants (presently too expensive to build) on the outskirts of every settlement.

How do you know people will cooperate?

Socialist theory relies on cooperation to work, but although capitalism is ostensibly a game of competition, the very act of playing the game involves a huge measure of cooperation over rules, so the ability of people to cooperate is beyond dispute. What is disputed is the nature of the circumstances determining one strategy or the other. Game theory has always been a controversial encroachment of mathematics into psychology. Its inventor, John von Neumann (also inventor of the computer CPU), infamously concluded from his test studies that the logical strategy of the West in the Cold War was a pre-emptive strike. Happily for us, even capitalist politicians weren’t that barking mad. Older versions (like Neumann’s Cold War example) tended to rely on simple two-player models with limited play duration, which criteria often produced aggressive or antisocial strategies. Later versions have added to the number of players, the level of complexity and the duration of play. Nowadays, among other curious approaches (see Out on a Limbic) game theory is being used increasingly as a way of understanding the complex and unpredictable behaviour of economic systems. In a new study (Economist, Jan 22, p.72) scientists call into question the underlying assumption of economics that people always rationally calculate their individual material outcomes, and suggest that human behaviour is actually governed by evolutionary stable ‘social’ strategies.  In this kind of game, players can adopt one of three strategies: cooperation at the risk of being betrayed, betrayal at the risk of gaining nothing, or reciprocation, warily cooperating but not trusting evidence of betrayal. Of 84 participants, 13% were cooperators, 20% betrayers and 63% reciprocators.

Although obviously not conclusive, this is suggestive of the received wisdom that most people are inclined to cooperate provided other people play fair. This finding ought to encourage doubters about socialist society’s long-term stability. People behave much as one would expect: they are not generally crooks, but they’re not suckers either.

Will socialism make us all happy?

Obviously not, if your mum has just died or your foot has just been run over. The tendency to see socialism as some kind of utopia must be resisted with every effort, although the sheer weight of misery pressing on people in capitalism does explain why socialists can be forgiven for sometimes overstating the case. Happiness cannot be bought, as everybody knows, but neoclassical economists, not being aware of this, have always relied on what people have ‘got’ and what they do as a measure of happiness. Unfortunately for the economists, this doesn’t explain why incomes have doubled in rich countries in the last 50 years but the number of people claiming to be ‘happy’ has stayed level at about 30% (Economist, Jan 15, p.73). In addition, studies of Harvard students showed that Marx’s notion of relative poverty (the huts and the palace story) was probably correct. The students preferred a lower income to a higher one provided nobody else was earning more. Income inequality is a ‘psychic wound’, says Richard Layard, author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, and the game of competition for money and status, being zero-sum,  can only ever confer wellbeing by taking it from somebody else. Thinking safely within the box of course, Layard proposes heavy income tax burdens to cancel out the superior well-being of the upper echelons.

Meanwhile researchers at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University are busy compiling something called the World Happiness Database (Time, Feb 7). According to this, poverty does not necessarily make you miserable, as the Latin Americans qualify as very happy people (for possible explanation, see above), while the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans are crying into their dollar bills. One surprising discovery is that Europe and especially Switzerland score so highly because people tend to be happier the more opportunities they have to vote. Says Bruno Frey of the University of Zurich and co-author of Happiness and Economics, speaking of Switzerland’s system of direct democracy involving several referenda a year: “People feel they have self-determination and a say in the political process, and that’s a big contributing factor to overall happiness.” Move over psychedelic drugs. If more democracy really equals more happiness, socialist society could be the ultimate kick.

Out on a Limbic

The fad for cross-disciplinary studies continues with psychology which, having been invaded by mathematics, itself turns to invading economics (Economist, Jan 15, p.68). The new ‘science’ of neuroeconomics is having a stab at explaining economic behaviour by studying the brain directly. Well, they’ve tried everything else. So far researchers using MRI brain-scanning equipment have established that the reason people find it hard to save money is because long-term plans involving deferred gratification activate the boringly intellectual pre-frontal cortex while blowing your stash on a big night out activates the infinitely sexier emotional centres of the limbic system. Their conclusion, that governments should force people to save, is not the conclusion a socialist would reach. Workers don’t get much immediate gratification. Let’s hear it for the limbic system.
Paddy Shannon

Exhibition Review: 'Imitation of Life' (2016)

Michael Armitage, Campus Divas
Exhibition Review from the June 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

Imitation of Life was a 1959 film, directed by Douglas Sirk, that dealt with issues of ‘race’ and gender in the US. One of its characters was a black woman whose daughter had a light-enough skin to pass as white, and the film looked at how successful she was in making her way in the world. The film was controversial at the time, and remains so, in terms of the extent to which it questioned or reinforced stereotypes about black people.

Now an exhibition of the same title is on at the Home arts centre in Manchester. Its sub-title is Melodrama and Race in the 21st Century, with ‘melodrama’ meaning something which is exaggerated and appeals to the emotions. Works by twelve artists are displayed.

Photos by Sophia Al-Maria deal with facial whitening creams, which are produced to be sold in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Many people in India are obsessed with having lighter-coloured skin. The packaging of the products is distorted in these shots, presumably echoing the faces to which these creams are applied.

Martine Syms looks at American situation comedies. The Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 to 1992, was attractive to a black audience as it showed black people as just like anyone else, but it erased ideas of black struggle.

Jayson Musson provides a video, using his alter ego Hennessy Youngman, on ‘How to be a successful black artist’ (it is available on YouTube). Success involves, for instance, being angry, which can be achieved by looking at a photo of Emmett Till in his coffin (Till was beaten and shot in Mississippi in 1955 at the age of fourteen after speaking to a married white woman). If all else fails, fall back on slavery, as white people lack a comparable shared cultural experience. White people, he claims, do not want to understand black artists, as this would mean the artists being just like the white spectator. This is clearly satirical, but its aim is to comment on power relationships and hierarchies within the art world, since black artists (and women) are under-represented in galleries.

So an exhibition that different visitors will quite likely react to in different ways. But whether it is quite as significant as the curators claim is another question.  
Paul Bennett

Why not here? (1967)

A Short Story from the June 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

Two observers from Outer Space peer at the earth through the porthole of their orbiting space craft.

The younger one turns to his companion. 

“How many times have you made this trip?”

“I can’t remember”.

“Have they visited us?”

“Not yet. They haven’t yet developed a ship that can penetrate deep space”.

The younger man glances at a spent booster in close orbit.

“Is that what they are trying to do now?”

“No, they are merely concerned with getting to their dead satellite which they call the Moon.”

“Isn’t that rather a waste of time?” 

“Not as they see it. Technically it could be used as a launching base for longer trips, but they are also concerned about exploiting its mineral deposits for use on earth”.

“I suppose they are running out of natural resources”.

“The earth isn’t seriously short but the rival factions are individually concerned about getting their supplies cheaper”. 

“What do you mean—cheaper?”

The older astronaut leaned against the cabin wall and smiled.

“Down there on earth they have a system of society known as capitalism in which a small minority owns and controls the earth’s resources and they are enabled to continue in this state by the fact that the non-property owning class are quite ignorant of the fact”.

“How can a large number of people be ignorant of such an obvious fact?” 

“Because they are conditioned to accept the proposition that they live in the best of all possible worlds and that their leaders are much more capable than they of deciding which course they should follow”.

“Why do they need leaders? Are they blind, or imbeciles?”

“They need leaders for two reasons. Firstly that they suffer from the delusion that capitalism can be made to run in everyone’s interests, and secondly because they can’t visualise any other system. They vote for one set of rulers and when they don’t get what they had hoped for they vote for another set. The irony of the situation is that whichever set they return to power the ownership of the wealth remains the property of the same class”.

“It seems incredible. I can hardly believe you are serious. How long has this been going on?”

“Years and years. Now they are at a stage where they have solved the problems of production but they can’t distribute the wealth they produce”.

“Why not?”

“Because they operate an exchange system in which metal discs or pieces of coloured paper represent the value of the objects to be exchanged. The slave class receives a certain amount of discs and notes according to the number of hours worked.

“Different types of worker are paid different amounts. Basically it is decided by the amount necessary to keep a worker and his family and to produce more workers. After all, the owning class must never be short of slaves, who are also employed to protect their masters’ property”.

“How do they do that?”

“Every few years various sections of the earth population go to war. That is to say they don uniforms according to whichever interests they are protecting and they proceed to kill one another”.

“Whatever for?”

“To eliminate the opposition. They kill and maim their fellow beings, male and female, young and old, and destroy any form of wealth that could be used against them”.

“How ridiculous”.

“They don’t think so. They allow themselves to be duped into believing that their opponents will perpetrate all sorts of cruel acts against them if they are captured and by these means their masters keep the slaughter going”.

“How revolting”.

“Revolting or not, that is how private ownership works”.

The younger astronaut turned pale.

“We don’t have to land, do we? I wouldn’t like to go too close to that lot”.

“No, we are just seeing how they are getting on and who is destroying whom this time”.

“Are they all as savage as one another?”

“No. As a matter of fact they are highly civilised but they haven’t yet reached the stage of political development where they realise that there is a solution.

“There are political parties in various parts of the globe that want to overthrow the present system and introduce another called Socialism in which all wealth and resources will be owned by the whole community. Where everyone will help to produce what society needs and take from society whatever they need as individuals”.

“Exactly what we’ve got, in fact”.


“It’s all so simple that I can’t understand why they haven’t thought of it a long time ago but the forces of capitalism are so powerful that the majority are still trying to make capitalism work in the interests of everyone”.

“But how can they do that?”

“They can’t, but they don’t know that yet.”

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A tender trap (1987)

From the July 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

It cannot be nostalgia which drives so many Tory propagandists to pine for the Labour Party as it used to be, when it was led by Attlee, Gaitskell and Wilson. There is — runs the argument — much to be said for Neil Kinnock: nice bloke, undoubtedly patriotic, responsible family man. keen on Rugby football; but his leadership of the Labour Party is like a pie crust which lies over an especially noxious filling — the Militants, the communists. the violent pickets, the local Labour councillors who put up the rates to provide grants for black, disabled homosexuals . . . "As soon as you see two blokes holding hands, give 'em a subsidy" said a London busworker to Labour candidate Ken Livingstone during the election. It was not, runs the argument further, at all like that in the good old days, when Labour was a moderate, reasonable party led by moderate, reasonable people who would not tolerate so much as a hint of extremism.

Is this a case of distance lending enchantment? By their standards, the Tories should consider the Attlee government to have been the most extremist, and the Labour Party under Kinnock to be the most moderate, in recent history. Attlee's government were responsible for that mass of nationalisation and for setting up structures like the National Health Service during their time in power from 1945 to 1951. Much of this went through with very little opposition from the Conservatives in parliament. In contrast Kinnock's Labour Party, in their election manifesto. offered only schemes like something called British Enterprise, to invest state funds in hi-tech industries; they promised to use the government's 49 per cent holding in British Telecom to "ensure proper influence in their decisions" and to convert the private holdings in BT and British Gas into a new type of security.

By those standards, the Tories of 1945-51 were more extremist than Labour members are today. In any case, how true is the assertion that the Labour Party of old was a placid, militant-free haven of unanimity? The first thing to be said is that at the time - whenever that was - the Tories did not see it in that way; in fact they have always used the extremist accusations against the Labour Party. To begin with Clement Attlee, when he won power in 1945, was derided by his opponents as a small, meek man unfit to live in Churchill's massive shadow. During the 1945 campaign, and afterwards. Attlee showed how wrong were these conceptions, that he was anything but a fuddy-duddy. His mild, distracted manner concealed a steely determination that British capitalism should be run to the benefit of its ruling class and in that cause he was as ruthless with his friends as with his enemies.

Attlee had not always had the image of puny respectability for he was once famously photographed giving the clenched fist salute at a Republican rally in Spain. He showed during the war and by his attitude to Russian capitalism in the Cold War that he was no Moscow-dominated subversive. The Labour Party in those days was by no means free of what are called extremists. There was, to begin with, the Bevanite clique who were the rallying point for Labour supporters impatient at the way their party was running British capitalism. The Bevanites were held up as the true conscience of the Labour Party, as proof that one day. whatever their problems. Labour would bring about the revolution for socialism. As a result, they were as reviled then as Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill are today. Then there was the group of Labour MPs who seemed to have taken seriously Labour's pledge that they would be sympathetic to Stalinist Russia - people like John Platts-Mills and Konni Zilliacus who could always be relied on for a public display of their blind support for the dictatorship in Russia and their readiness to excuse all its atrocities.

The time of Attlee's successor, Hugh Gaitskell, was no more notable for blissful unity. Gaitskell's reaction to the shock of losing the 1959 election was to set on foot the purging of Labour 's apparent commitment to wholesale nationalisation contained in Clause Four of the party constitution. There was no attempt to justify this change on grounds of principle; the case for getting rid of Clause Four was that it was a vote loser. This incensed many Labour Party members and not only the "extremists"; not a few people had joined the party because they believed, however mistakenly, that nationalisation was the solution to most of capitalism's problems. (It is another matter, if Gaitskell had had his way, whether these people would have done the logical, honest thing and resigned their membership. More probably they would have stayed in the party, wretchedly comforting themselves with the last-ditch defence that, however bad the Labour Party might be, it was better than the Conservatives).

There was another uproar in the Labour Party when Gaitskell was defeated in the 1960 conference vote on unilateral nuclear disarmament. The people who favoured disarmament put a simple argument - that nuclear weapons are too devastating to be allowed to remain in existence. This perfectly accurate statement was followed by the inaccurate and baseless assertion that the way to get rid of the weapons was to tell capitalism's governments how frightful they are (forgetting that those governments had developed the things precisely because of their awesome destructive power). The unilateralists seemed to think that voting for disarmament at a Labour Party conference would have some effect but Gaitskell made it quite clear that if he ever became prime minister he would run things as the interests of British capitalism demanded, not in accordance with how Labour delegates voted at their conference. The response of his faction to the unilateralists was also simple. Everyone agreed that the weapons were terrible but they could not be abolished because British capitalism needed them if it was to hold any place in the world power struggle; if Labour stood for getting rid of the British stockpile they would never again win an election:
Britain has to be defended today in conditions that exist today and not those we wish existed today. Until general disarmament is achieved, then deterrence means defence in those conditions. (George Brown, then Labour spokesman on "Defence").
. . .  the conference has to decide "what are our chances of securing political power". (Sam Watson, NEC member).
(Both at the Labour Party conference, 1960).
As it turned out there was a more subtle way of keeping the weapons and of winning elections while allowing the unilateralists to think that the government were in favour of getting rid of them. This trickery was wrought by Harold Wilson, who had dearly taken the opportunity of Gaitskell's struggles to quietly appear as Labour's great unifier. For example. he derided the "independent British nuclear deterrent” as neither independent nor British nor a deterrent. This was cheering to the CND followers, who took it to mean that a Wilson government would favour abolition of the British weapons. They have still not learned through such experiences; unilateralists still think that a Labour government is more likely to abandon the bomb than a Tory one is, they still think it useful to spend their time trying to get a unilateralist policy written into Labour policy, as if a Labour government would be in the slightest degree impressed.

The Wilson government banked on the success of their great planning bonanza, which was going to swamp us all in prosperity. Higher productivity would provide everyone with the best things in life. This was at most a disconnected argument but in any case the whole idea was quickly overtaken by a succession of economic and financial crises which could not be explained away even by Wilson's speeches. Labour's left wing extremists and their everyday members were in revolt — against the government's continual battles with the unions over pay rises, against Labour's support for American capitalism's war in Vietnam, against their compliance with the genocide in what was briefly the state of Biafra. It is true that Wilson generally managed to keep the dissidents in check; he had more problems with the other wing of his party, with people like Mayhew, Brown and Gunter but no one can look back on his leadership as a time of peace and unity in Labour's ranks.

Capitalist parties often accuse each other of being in the grip of "extremists". They all have their crazier elements who frighten the more impressionable among the other side. The Labour Party have Tony Benn, Denis Skinner, Ken Livingstone; the Tories have Peter Bruinvels, Terry Dicks and Harvey Proctor. One thing all these extremists have in common is the habit of avoiding reality — the economic laws and the inexorable demands of capitalism. Tory extremists may spout against coloured immigration but the reality is that those workers came to this country — many of them encouraged by the Ministry of Health when Enoch Powell was Minister — because of those laws. They constituted a pool of unemployed workers and. in the process of adjusting demand to supply. they moved to a place where there was a relative shortage of labour power. That is how capitalism works and how it will always work, whatever extremists may wish or say.

Extremists are often tamed by the temptations of power, which have the effect of miraculously purging them of all seditious ideas. Michael Foot, for example, was once one of Labour's most inveterate extremists, always liable to take the stand at the party conference to remind everyone about their supposed principles and the struggle of the common people . . . When he became a minister, at first under Wilson and then under Callaghan. Foot was obsessed with clinging onto power. This was despite that government being in continual conflict with the workers, coming to a climax in the Winter of Discontent, despite it seeing unemployment double, despite it beginning the programme of massive cuts in state spending which the Thatcher government continued.

The Labour Party still makes its appeal partly on grounds of principle, even though the "principles" become more and more vague so that now they are little more than an implied concern about poverty, health, peace and so on. But there remain people who are gullible enough to cling to the "principles". Their disappointment is inevitable - and in many cases so is their rebellion. If they persist in this they are liable to be labelled as extremist when all they really are is gullible and confused.
Nostalgia is a trap — more so when your opponents are nostalgic on your behalf. Just as the Tories pretend to pine for the days of Attlee. Gaitskell and Wilson so Labour supporters recall the Conservative Party of Churchill. Macmillan and Heath as more humane and unifying. If it is necessary for these parties to spread such confusion about each others' past, what hope can they hold for the future?

Editorial: The Labour Party Betrays The Unemployed. (1925)

Editorial from the April 1925 issue of the Socialist Standard

None of the three parties, Liberal, Labour, Conservative, has solved or can solve the problem of unemployment. All three stand for capitalism, with only minor disagreements on policy and administration, and unemployment cannot be abolished while capitalism remains. But in addition to making promises which they could not fulfil, each has also promised to make the condition of the unemployed ‘‘tolerable.” This they could do, and have all failed to do. The Labour Party was, and is, particularly forward in parading its sympathy with the innocent victims of capitalism, and in the present House of Commons some Labour M.P.'s have attacked a new regulation which will deny unemployment pay to many who have been out of work the longest. To their protests on this, as on nearly every other matter, the Conservatives are able to reply by pointing out that they are only continuing the policy of the Labour Party when it was in office. As Ellen Wilkinson remarks (“Lansbury’s Labour Weekly," Feb. 28, 1925):—
It is, of course, distinctly aggravating for the female Labour Member to be referred to the actions of her own Government last year as a justification for anything that she objects to the Conservatives doing.
But, aggravating or not, it happens to be true.

Thus Brailsford, in the “New Leader" (March 13th), says of the new Circular:—
Even before this tightening process began, 120,000 persons were deprived of benefit since August. last year, and to this total about 30,000 will now be added.
The Labour Party, through whose action the dole has been stopped from 120,000 persons, cannot very well throw stones at their successors, who have not yet reached a quarter of that total.

Mr. George Lansbury contributed, among others, to the unemployment debates (Hansard, March 9th, 1925). His proposal was to give every young man between 18 and 25 the choice between starvation and working on the land. If they refused to work at a “fair wage," he would not let them have a farthing. At present agricultural wages are, many of them, in the neighbourhood of 30s. for a man of 21, with lower rates for those below that age. Two years ago, when Mr. J. R. MacDonald “settled" a strike of Norfolk land workers, he obtained for them a “fair wage" of 25s. Mr. Lansbury is apparently satisfied that a man ought to be allowed to starve who refuses exhausting work for long hours on the land, work, too, for which most of the unemployed are, quite unfitted both by training and through semi-starvation if they have been long out of work. Yet with the Communists and other so-called “left-wingers" Lansbury passes as a Socialist.

But the proposal is foolish as well as being anti-working-class. There are already land workers unemployed. If, therefore, more agricultural produce is to be grown and thrown on the market, prices will fall and still more land will go out of cultivation, and men at present working will lose their jobs. A possible alternative is that the produce be used to maintain the unemployed instead of being sold. This, however, immediately raises the question of cost. As it happens, the capitalist class have so far been of the opinion, and probably correctly, that the system of doles and relief is the cheapest possible one for them.

The unemployed have to he kept from sheer starvation, and the capitalists have to foot the bill. They may pay a man 18s. to do nothing, or set him to work on the land, but if they do the latter it costs them much more than 18s. A man working hard eats more, wears out more clothes, and must have better clothes and boots, as well as tools, machinery, etc. Rent would need to be paid and, in short, it is fairly certain that the dole is cheaper and that the capitalists do know more about this aspect of capitalism than do the Labour amateurs who are so anxious to administer the system for them. This is but one of the many brilliant futilities offered by the Labour Party to solve what is within capitalism insoluble.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Pathfinders: Great Men of Straw (2016)

The Pathfinders Column from the June 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
Items in the news last month included a NASA report that April was the seventh month in a row to break global temperature records, that five Solomon Islands have now disappeared underwater, that the Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet, and that the first ever global assessment, from botanists at London's Kew Gardens, has declared that 21 percent of all plant species are now under threat of extinction.
This litany of climate-related misery was not in the least relieved by news that politicians have completed the business of ratifying the Paris Climate accord, whereby the world's nations will join arm-in-arm and shoulder-to-shoulder to fight climate change with their combined unstoppable forces of piety, chewed lips and crossed fingers.
It surely won't be just socialists who, on reading the paper every morning, have that familiar Solomon-sinking feeling that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket and nobody, especially not the capitalist politicians, has a blind clue what to do about it.
It's anybody's guess what effect climate change will have on global politics in the future. Perhaps the world will look over the precipice and experience a dramatic epiphany and adopt world socialism in a process which the German sociologist Ulrich Beck described as 'emancipatory catastrophism' (New Scientist, 30 April). Somehow though we don't think so. The best way to make a house habitable is not to burn it down first.
An interesting clue about climatic effects in history was reported recently by a team of volcanologists and historians who looked at events in Roman history from around 250 BC and matched them with evidence (from Antarctic ice cores et al) of volcanic eruptions (New Scientist, 7 May). The team claims a close correlation between eruptions and domestic uprisings in Ptolemaic Egypt, due to poor rainfall in the Ethiopian uplands and corresponding flood failures in the Nile valley, leading to failed harvests. They argue that eight out of ten documented revolts against the Ptolemaic rulers started within two years of an eruption. Ultimately, runs the reasoning, this weakening of Egypt led to the defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BC, which opened the way for the Augustan Empire and the beginnings of the modern western world.
You can argue the pros and cons of this fun idea. Clearly the modern world doesn't owe its origins to the teleological absurdity of a couple of volcanoes going off pop at crucial moments. For one thing, Egypt was not especially weak, economically speaking, as was shown by the fact that Marc Anthony stopped the supply of Egyptian grain, upon which Rome heavily relied, in order to blackmail the Senate. As for Actium, Octavian's general Agrippa probably ought to have some credit, and besides it may just be that the Egyptians were never that great at winning sea battles - if you look at a Wikipedia list of ancient naval battles, there are numerous Egyptian naval defeats and the only instance of a victory was c 1190 BC against an unidentified opponent (the 'Sea Peoples'), making the event more legend than fact.
Quibbles aside, the thing to note in all this is that you never hear anybody, scientist or historian or for that matter the bloke down the pub, nowadays saying things like 'That Augustus (or maybe Julius Caesar) was a genius, you know, we wouldn't be anywhere today without him.' It's worth noting this because in Victorian times the dominant view was somewhat different, as summed up by Thomas Carlyle: 'the history of the world is but the biography of great men' (and he meant men). This 'heroic' view, set out in his 1841 book On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, gave scant consideration to social conditions, economic affairs or other environmental circumstances and instead saw history rather like a mute and passive baton passed from one hero to the next, to do with as they saw fit. The only reason to study history, as Carlyle saw it, was to understand heroes like Muhammad, Pericles or Napoleon in order to behave more like them.
The obvious fact that most people are not in a position to behave like these 'heroes' (and would be locked up in a psyche ward if they did) means that they don't count for anything at all and are written out of history as irrelevant. Small wonder then that the heroic view flattered the conceits of the bourgeoisie and was also popular with intellectual academicians like Nietzsche.
Not everyone was persuaded. Herbert Spencer considered the heroic view as bordering on infantile and responded furiously that 'before he (the great man) can remake his society, his society must make him', an argument that socialists more generally associate with Karl Marx and the materialist conception of history.
In the materialist view, change can occur due to many non-material factors, whether social, psychological (or heroic), cultural or historical, but economic conditions tend usually to be the crucial and generally decisive factor. Marx used the terms base and superstructure, and we can envisage this as a piece of land with buildings on it. Thus, a fire in an upper storey of one cultural building (say paedophile scandals in the Catholic Church) might have some small effect on other structures but none at all on the material foundations of society. In contrast, an earthquake in the economic base, the land itself, would certainly upset all the cultural structures built on top of it.
O tempora, o mores. Nowadays the materialist perspective has achieved orthodoxy among academic historians (Carlyle would be flunked out of college), while workers in general are conspicuously divided between materialists on the one hand and hero-worshippers on the other. This is a big problem because how you look at history deeply influences what you intend to do and can expect to achieve in the future.
Materialists ought to be socialists because they instinctively grasp that real change can only occur through a shaking up of the economic base of society, or what we call revolution. The hero-worshippers continue to hope in the face of all the evidence for a hero to emerge and save them, in the form of some politician or demagogue, and are thus grasping at nothing at all except straws and straw men.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Some Cash Points (1995)

From the February 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard

Scattered throughout the land, with the inconspicuous ubiquity of the beggars who are now everywhere, is a new form of life-support machine. They are to be found on every major street, sometimes several of them in a row. Staggering towards them, gasping for the machines, are endless streams of wretches who queue before the machine, like Muslims before Mecca. Cards in hands they stand - we stand, for you and I are there frequently - and appeal to the money machine, like robots in search of oil to keep them toiling.

In the face of the cash machine all claims to individuality collapse. “I AM A NUMBER” you remind yourself, as you tap in the four digits given to you by the bank to register your new identity. It is no use tapping in a stanza from Shelley, a line or two from Morrissey, an extract from your diary . . . The machine does not want to know who you are or how you feel, but simply how much money you want and how much money you arc allowed to have. It issues cold instructions: PRESS AMOUNT REQUIRED - WAIT - TAKE THE CARD - TAKE THE MONEY PROMPTLY . . . Missing you already!

That is the pleasant scenario. The cash machines have no obligation to deliver the dosh. Let us say
Illustration by George Meddemmen.
that a mother with two kids approaches The Machine, inserts her card and requests £30 so that she can buy enough to feed her children for the week. She has exceeded her overdraft. The Machine misses nothing. Request denied. There is no right to appeal on grounds of need: WITHDRAW YOUR CARD AND GO AWAY. Next in the queue stands a businessman who has made his fortune out of renting out slum properties to the poor. He is about to clinch a deal and proposes to withdraw £100 to pay for a decent business lunch. (Wine doesn’t come cheap in the decent restaurants, you know.) He inserts his card and The Machine, still angry at the audacity of the greedy mother and her excessive demands, pours out the twenty-quid notes, reassured that the world makes sense once more.

If you have no money you go without. In some countries you watch your babies slowly starve to death. In this country you face the indignities, discomforts and insecurities of scraping by with needs greater than you have money. There is no greater symbol of alienation than money. It tramples on our freedoms and desires, crushing hope in the impoverished and lavishing endless powers upon the extremely rich. The cash machine is symptom, not cause of this state of affairs. It is an inanimate player in a cruel game. The man who was seen some weeks ago in Camden Town kicking the wall containing the cash machine of the Royal Bank of Scotland made no impact upon the system which made him poor. (Even as a gesture of mere anti-Scots nationalism it would have been impotent.) Had he smashed open the machine and strangled it with its own thinly-wired innards The Tyranny of Money would have been dented no more than by the knocking-off of a policeman’s hat during an anti-war demonstration. The machine has built-in resilience.

Some months ago in a Budgen supermarket a woman presented her goods at the till, was given her bill and then presented her Visa card to the cashier. The card was inserted into the machine and, within seconds, popped out with the word VOID appearing in the appropriate slot. Her card was not accepted the cashier asked for cash. The woman had none. She looked around her, perhaps hoping that one of us in the neighbouring queue would pull out their wallet and act the Samaritan rather than shuffle the coins in our pockets and feel sorry for her. She burst into tears and left without the shopping. An unpurchased cabbage stood as a monument to her poverty. Did she go home and curse Budgen or the Tories or the blacks or the Jews . . . or maybe join the suicide statistics . . .  or maybe, like me and like you, accommodate herself to the sickly rituals of spending within her means? We can be sure that the credit-card machine lost no sleep over the drama. It is just a machine, and the cashiers, the managers, the accountants and producers of goods merely appendages to the machine.

In the Little Chef restaurant on the M1 the waiters plug themselves into the cash till before taking our money. It is apparently a security measure to ensure that the appendage pays sufficient homage to the machine. It is hard to think of a more symbolic image of the alienating bondage of money fetishism than a grown man plugging himself into a money machine.
Steve Coleman

Taking care of number one (1996)

Theatre Review from the June 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Brothers of the Brush by Jimmy Murphy (Arts Theatre)

Capitalism brutalises human relationships. Politicians are right when they talk about the importance of 'competing with economic opponents’ and 'the struggle to survive’. The dynamics of capitalism sets class against class, pits country against country and individuals against one another.

The fortune tellers of capitalist economics argue that those who survive the vicious culling of the work force as companies struggle to reduce costs, feel powerful and empowered. Analysts report, however, that the facts are rather different: that the survivors are frequently inhibited by uncertainty and riddled with guilt.

In Brothers of the Brush, a new play by Jimmy Murphy, at the Arts Theatre, the corrosive impact of the black economy on working relationships is examined with an authentic blend of humour and merciless honesty. Four flawed but decent men fell victim of exploitation and the power games of management and unions, with predictable and tragic results.

Here is a play of rare passion and skill, with dialogue as sharp and convincing as anything currently available in London. Murphy chillingly demonstrates that morality is determined by the inexorable laws of economics, and that in the dog eat dog world of capitalist economics the niceties of social behaviour are frequently a victim of the need to survive.

Writing about his play Murphy observes that "In the black economy unions are as redundant as the workforce they once represented, old alliances are spurned, ideologies discarded, a new creed is the order of the day, look after number one".

But looking after number one - whether it be class, group or individual - is at the very heart of capitalism. Murphy’s unsentimental, vivid and serious drama is in feet an unflinching attack on the barbarisms of employment

After the burdens of watching two pieces of pretentious, bourgeois drama on recent visits to the theatre, Murphy’s play is like a douche of cold, refreshing water. This is a play about real people feeing real dilemmas. It is beautifully constructed, poignant piece of theatre. If you can’t catch it in London do look out for it when it is produced locally. Thoroughly recommended.
Michael Gill

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Being Dumped (2012)

Book Review from the February 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

When a Billion Chinese Jump by Jonathan Watts, Faber and Faber, £9.99

Don’t judge a book by its cover – or by its title. This is actually a well-researched investigation of the environmental crisis in China based on visits to many different parts of the country.

Western companies have outsourced a great deal of manufacturing to China, from iPods to shoes and toys. In addition, a lot of waste from production in the West is sent to China: ‘It was cheaper to send a container of waste from London to Guangdong on an otherwise empty ship than it was to truck it to Manchester.’Computers and mobile phones (e-garbage) are transported to China, and dangerous chemicals extracted from them.

One town, Qiaotouin Zhejiang province, has become the world centre of zip and button production. Making zips islabour-intensive and requires relatively little by way of capital investment, but, at least when practiced without proper environmental controls, it is highly polluting, and on some days flakes of white plastic fill the Qiaotou air.

It is fairly well known that working as a coal miner in China is extremely dangerous, with a death rate pertonnemined thirty times that in the US. This is partly because the economy depends greatly on coal for almost 70 percent of its energy needs. Hydroelectric plants may be cleaner in theory, but they tend to attract dirty factories in their vicinity and coal-fired power stations, too, which provide electricity in the dry season, something dams cannot do. President Hu Jintao is a hydro engineer, and the company he used to work for is now the world’s biggest dam-building corporation. 

It is not just a matter of dirty industries being moved from the West to Japan and Taiwan and then to China, for within China they are increasingly being shifted from the coastal areas to more remote inland provinces where environmental regulations are even laxer and local politicians are keen on ‘development’at almost any cost.

It’s little wonder that even other capitalist countries are becoming concerned at China’s record on the environment: it contributes massively to polluting the globe and enables Chinese capitalists to undercut many Western companies.
Paul Bennett

Anarchist history (1998)

Book Review from the June 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Spanish Anarchists. The Heroic years 1868-1936 by Murray Bookchin. AK Press. £13.95.

This is a reprint, with a new introduction, of a history of anarchism Spain until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936 that first appeared in 1976.

Spain was the one European country where the organised working-class movement embraced anarchism rather than Social Democracy as its ideology. Bookchin traces the historical reasons for this. One was that everywhere the workers' movement emerged out of the leftwing of the bourgeois radical movement and in Spain the bourgeois radicals were Federalists, i.e. wanted a constitution for Spain similar to that in Switzerland where power would rest with cantons rather than with a central state.

Anarchist ideas were introduced into Spain at the end of the 1860s by the followers of Bakunin within the First International. Contrary to the myth cultivated by anarchists, the dispute between Marx and Bakunin within this organisation was not between an authoritarian Marx and a libertarian Bakunin but between a Marx who saw the workers' movement as an open democratic movement and Bakunin who advocated that it should be directed behind the scenes by a secret society of dedicated revolutionaries. Bakunin was booted out of the First International not for being a libertarian but for being a proto-Leninist vanguardist. Even Bookchin, who writes as an anarchist, is compelled by the facts to concede:
"Bakunin's 'International Brotherhood' has been dealt with derision as a hierarchical, elitist organization which stands in blatant contradiction to his libertarian principles. This contradiction in my view is very real. Bakunin had intended the 'International Brotherhood' to be a secret organization of Anarchist militants, led in tightly disciplined fashion by a highly centralized group of initiates—indeed, by what amounted to a revolutionary general staff" (p. 41).

This idea that revolutionaries should organise as a masonic-type secret society was another bourgeois-revolutionary tradition inherited by Spanish anarchists which lasted right down to the 1930s when the FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation) infiltrated and came to control the syndicalist CNT (National Confederation of Labour) which had been set up by militant trade unionists in 1911.

The CNT was not an anarchist body but anarchists had an input in its organisation and ideology. As a result the CNT adopted as its long-term aim "libertarian communism" rather than state-capitalist nationalisation as elsewhere in Europe. This did allow it to avoid the mistakes made by trade unionists elsewhere of supporting and even sponsoring parties that stood for state capitalism, but it was only a long-term aim and in practice the CNT acted as a militant trade union seeking immediate improvements for workers within capitalism.

The FAI—which was essentially a secret anarchist terrorist organisation set up in 1927 under the Primo de Rivera dictatorship—regarded this as reformism and sought to use the CNT in its plans for insurrection. This met resistance from within the ranks of the CNT by trade unionists who, according to Bookchin's account, seem to have had a better grasp of reality:
"Not only did the CNT lack the support of a majority of the Spanish people, they argued, but it lacked the support of the majority of the Spanish working class. Anarchosyndicalists were a minority within a minority. Even within the CNT membership, a large number of workers and peasants shared only a nominal allegiance to libertarian ideals. They were members of the CNT because the union was strong in their localities and work places. If these people, and the Spaniards generally, were not educated in Anarchist principles, warned the moderates, the revolution would simply degenerate into an abhorrent dictatorship of ideologues" (p. 193).

The FAI brushed such objections aside and in 1931 succeeded in capturing the CNT and, applying classic Bakuninist tactics, in Bookchin's words, "dragged" the CNT into a number of "insurrectionary adventures". The results were disastrous. Not only were hundreds of workers' lives sacrificed but the CNT split. In fact, reading Bookchin's account the thought springs to mind that the disaster that was to befall the Spanish working class might have had a chance of being avoided if the anarchist vanguardists of the FAI had left the CNT alone.

Even Bookchin questions whether an "anarchist revolution" could have been sustained in Spain in 1936. Certainly, the workers showed that they could take over and run the factories and the peasants that they could take over and cultivate the land without capitalists and landlords but, Bookchin asks, could it have lasted:
"But what would happen when everyday life began to feel the pinch of economic want of the material problems imposed not only by the Civil War but by Spain's narrow technological base? 'Communism will be the result of abundance,' Santillan had warned in the spring of 1936, 'without which it will remain only an ideal'. Could the ardor of the CNT and FAI surmount the obstacles of scarcity and material want in the basic necessities of life, obstacles that had limited the forward thrust of earlier revolutions?" (p. 284).

Bookchin only hints at a negative answer, but in the event the matter was not tested. The "anarchist revolution" was first stopped by the Republican government with the Stalinist "Communists" in the lead and then savagely crushed by the Franco fascists.

Adam Buick

Monday, June 20, 2016

The abolition of money (1982)

From the January 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

At first it is hard to envisage a world without money. It requires a considerable jump of the political imagination to think of life without banks, wallets, coins, bills, cheque books or financial worries. From birth to the grave, workers’ lives are conditioned by money. Without it we starve; because of it we are poor; to get it we are forced into wage slavery; if we steal it we can be locked away; people grow old before their time because of it.

In Robert Tressell's classic socialist novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, the socialist, Owen, explained to his workmates the nature of money:
“Let us begin at the beginning”, continued Owen . . .“First of all, what do you mean by Poverty?”
“Why, if you’ve got no money, of course,” said Crass impatiently.
The others laughed disdainfully. It seemed to them such a foolish question.
“Well, that’s true enough as far as it goes,” returned Owen, “that is, as things are arranged in the world at the present. But money itself is not wealth: it’s of no use whatever.”
At this there was another outburst of jeering laughter.
“Supposing for example that you and Harlow were shipwrecked on a desolate island, and you saved nothing from the wreck but a bag containing a thousand sovereigns, and he had a tin of biscuits and a bottle of water.” “Make it beer,” cried Harlow appealingly.
"Who would be the richer man, you or Harlow?” (p. 29)
In short, it is not money as such which can satisfy needs, but money as a medium of exchange. According to Owen, "Money is the cause of poverty because it is the device by which those who are too lazy to work are enabled to rob the workers of the fruits of their labour” (p. 209). The significant point is that Tressell (or Robert Noonan, as he was really called) was not considered strange for making his socialist character advocate the abolition of the monetary system. At the turn of the century, when the Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed, socialists were frequently heard advocating a moneyless society. After all, how could one logically speak about a system of common ownership without referring to its logical consequences?

These days, those who pose as socialists, but in fact have no other purpose than to reform the capitalist system, are never heard to refer to the abolition of money. Benn, the SWP, the Communist Party and Co. are all united in their dismissal of the possibility of a moneyless society. The celebrated Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution states its aim as “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. The illogicality of such an objective betrays the Labour Party’s profound confusion about the nature of socialism: if resources are commonly owned, who is going to need money to buy anything and who will be selling it? The abolition of all property and the introduction of common ownership necessarily does away with the anachronistic social relationships of buying and selling. The confusion of the Communist Party of Great Britain is clearly demonstrated in its pamphlet. Time to Change Course; in the section headed “Where Will The Money Come From?” (p. 81), we are told about financing socialism:
Under socialism, with all the main industries, land, resources and financial houses publicly owned, it is from these sources that the main forms of revenue will be derived. Personal taxation will be simple and not too arduous for the majority of people. Indirect taxation would be kept to a minimum. The present rating system would go. Local authorities would rely on other steps to raise local revenue.
Clearly, the Communist Party has failed to liberate itself from the ideological assumptions of the money system. Its members would do well to read Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto in which he states that Communists (or socialists) stand for “the abolition of buying and selling”. This revolutionary objective is a hallmark of any principled socialist. Anyone claiming to stand for socialism who rejects the need for a society without money (or the possibility of attaining it) is not a socialist and should be treated as an opponent.

Great ideas are of social origin and never the product of just one brain. In the months before Marx’s Communist Manifesto was published in English (in November 1850), a number of workers in Britain were discussing the idea of abolishing money. The correspondence on the subject, which appeared in the Chartist journal, The Red Republican, has never before been seriously examined by historians. Presumably, most of them have dismissed the correspondence as an insignificant exchange of views between harmless economic eccentrics; in fact, it is a highly significant discussion, showing that there were workers discussing the case for a moneyless society before the Socialist Party of Great Britain began to advocate it.

The first letter, from George Smith of Salford, was published in The Red Republican on 27 July 1850, under the heading “ABOLITION OF MONEY”. He argues that
. . . in order . . . to prepare the way for the absolute supremacy of the working classes, preparatory to the abolition of the system of classes, what should be done? Evidently something more than getting possession of political rights, or even destroying those twin monsters, rent and usury; for had we possession of the one and had successfully destroyed the other, there would yet remain in existence a monster which would reproduce its kind to torment humanity; and that monster is money! Sir, in my opinion, so long as mankind will agree to have a circulating medium — will allow everything in life to be measured by money — so long will they suffer the evil consequences springing therefrom . . .
By 10 August, Smith’s letter had provoked a response. The writer, who signed himself “A Wage Slave”, opposes the need to abolish money, stating that “What society wants is just social institutions”. He argued that capitalism survives because workers are not paid the full value of their labour power and that the real need is for an equitable distribution of money. (The modern Left, one hundred and thirty years later, has not advanced beyond such theoretical fallacies.)

The Red Republican of 24 August contains two letters on the money question, taking up three columns. The first is from RPP, who states that the abolition of money “is the most important subject for discussion at the present time”. He goes on to agree that money should be abolished:
I would root out and abolish a system that compels man to give the sweat of his heart’s blood to the great money-mongers, wasting his own time, strength and happiness, as wealth may command. It is the slavery of the many for the sake of the few. Such a state of things must no longer exist, for man was made to enjoy all things equally with his fellow-man.
But — just as the reader is thinking that the correspondent has hit the nail very close to its head — RPP proceeds to argue that “the working classes must return to barter”. The second letter is from George Smith, who initiated the correspondence, and contains some excellent answers to the arguments of “Wage Slave”:
Strange, that in the 19th century, any wage slave should be found to advocate the continuance, in any shape, of that which, whilst it shall last, must perpetuate his vassalage, to its “fortunate possessors”. Does not my friend see both the craft and the hellishness of money? Who produces everything which sustains life, and feeds our desires for luxuries? The workers! Through the instrumentality of their labour, and by no other means can these things be produced. Then by what chicanery do those who “work not, neither do they spin” obtain all they want to superfluity, whilst those who produce are kept almost without? Why, by the crafty invention and use of money, with which they, like true “philanthropists”, come to the producer, and assure him that the food he is taking home is not “the stuff of life” but that which they will give him in return for his food is the real sustainer of existence, and thus he is cheated out of his produce for a shadow.
Smith rather confuses cause and effect — it is not money which produces class division, but the other way round — but nevertheless he is clearly moving in the direction of the ideas later to be elaborated by Marx. Responding to “Wage Slave’s” advocacy of a “just commercial system”, Smith rightly states that:
For a man to dispose (or sell) of his labour at the “public mart” presupposes a buyer of that labour, and, according to our friend’s just commercial system, I am afraid that no buyers would purchase unless they could live out of such purchases. To live by buying and selling is to live nefariously.
“Wage Slave” replies on 7 September, stating that he can now see the importance of Smith’s idea, but doubts whether everyone else will be intelligent enough to live in a moneyless society. (A familiar argument from modern Leftists.) “Why propose to do that which is impossible at the present time?” asks “Wage Slave”. This question was asked of the SPGB when it was formed in 1904 and it was for this reason that our members were labelled “the impossibilists”. If those who took this view in 1850 and 1904 had spent less time running away from the need to convince people of a good idea, and telling its advocates that they were wasting their time, we would have achieved the seemingly impossible long ago.

On 14 September Alexander Bill contributed a letter to the correspondence, in which he argued (rather confusedly) that he was opposed to “the total and unconditional abolition of money”, although he did agree with Smith “when he says that our present monetary system is the basis of all those social evils under which we labour”. His answer was to introduce a “prohibition of private trading” and “the establishment of public marts”. Effectively, this was an argument for state capitalism.

The final letter on the subject was published on 28 September and came from George Smith. To “Wage Slave’s” claim that workers could not arrive at the point of intelligence which would make a moneyless society possible, Smith responds:
Intelligence! What is it? Walker says intelligence is “perception, understanding”. Now, will my friend say that it is impossible for the intelligent to excite the perception of the, at present, ignorant, and give them understanding?
No further letter appeared on the subject. Smith’s question remained unanswered. But since 1850, the post-Chartist Left has responded to the question in the negative. While claiming to be fully committed Marxists, they refuse to advocate the case for the abolition of money because they consider the working class too stupified by capitalist conservatism ever to accept or understand it. Instead, they argue in favour of state capitalism. It is because of this that socialists are fundamentally hostile to the left-wing parties and groups.

Genuine socialists stand for a society in which all factories, farms, offices, docks, mines — indeed, the entire means of producing and distributing wealth — will be owned by the entire world community. The resources of the earth will belong to everyone. No laws will exist to preserve the right of one section of society to use things and another section to be denied the use of them. World socialism will be a social order based on free access for all people to all the goods of the earth. In such a society money would by an out-dated relic. Nobody will buy anything or sell anything or pay for anything. Those who cannot easily imagine such an arrangement should remember that people in pre-capitalist societies would have found our present social order equally difficult to comprehend. Those who have made the mental leap from the prison of the money system to the freedom of world socialism are urged to join us now in our struggle to create the society of tomorrow. The objective is urgent; we have waited for too long.
Steve Coleman

Material World: Give Us the Vote (2016)

The Material World column from the June 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
The right to vote matters little if you can’t cast your vote. On the basis of its claim to be defenders of democracy one would expect the United States of America to be in the forefront of encouraging participation in the electoral process since voting is held up as the foundation of democracy. Over 100 million Americans will cast a ballot in November’s presidential election but many will face disenfranchisement — those without IDs, those convicted of crimes, those that need to work, those that can't find childcare, those that can't travel, and often this disenfranchisement is deliberate. In 2008, the Supreme Court opened the door to more restrictive voting procedures when it upheld an Indiana law that required all voters casting a ballot in person to present a federal or Indiana photo ID. Since 2010, many other states have either introduced restrictive voter procedures or tightened up those in operation. Events are, of course, currently unfolding as legal challenges are being made to restrictive laws.
The American Civil Liberties Union noted that new restrictions on voting will affect up to 80 million and critics argue that photo ID laws create a financial barrier to the ballot box. Former Attorney General Eric Holder compared the laws to a poll tax during the ‘Jim Crow Era’ when Southern states imposed voting fees, to discourage blacks from voting. About 11 percent of U.S. citizens, or roughly 21 million citizens, don’t have government-issued photo ID and many people in rural areas have trouble accessing ID offices. Obtaining photo ID can be costly and burdensome. While many states with strict laws offer a free state ID, these require documents like a birth certificate that can cost up to $25. Researchers found that states with a strict photo ID law saw a significant decrease in turnout among minority and immigrant voters and an increased gap between white and non-white voters.
Some states are also trimming back or eliminating measures which bolster electoral participation by minority and younger voters. Eight states have enacted new laws cutting back on early voting days and hours.  In 2013, North Carolina reduced early voting days from 17 to 10, ended the ability to register and cast a vote on the same day and abolished a pre-registration programme for 16- and 17-year-olds. But one of the major barriers to universal suffrage is the disenfranchisement of ex-prisoners.
The Constitution permits states to adopt rules about disenfranchisement ‘for participation in rebellion, or other crime’ [our emphasis], by the Fourteenth Amendment. Individual states themselves decide which crimes could be grounds for disenfranchisement so laws vary from state to state. There were 1.2 million in 1976 denied the right to vote due to felony disenfranchisement. In 2008 over 5.3 million people. Nationally in 2012, an estimated 5.85 million Americans are denied the vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions.
Due to the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, this has resulted in one in every thirteen African Americans unable to vote. The disenfranchisement of felons was used by Southern states combined with other tactics to neutralise the black electorate, in the wake of the Fifteenth Amendment, which ostensibly guaranteed African Americans the vote. A study found that the larger the state’s black population, the more likely the state was to pass the most stringent laws that permanently denied people convicted of crimes the right to vote. In three states (Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia) by 2014, more than one in five black adults were disenfranchised. Very different from Maine and Vermont where there is no significant black population and who have placed no restrictions on voting rights for people convicted and actually allow inmates to vote from prison (something the UK still doesn’t.)
Felony disenfranchisement is an obstacle to participation in civic life. Conditions have improved for at least 200,000 Virginian ex-felons who have served their time and had their right to vote restored by the Governor. He explained, ‘These individuals have completed their sentences. They have atoned for their actions. They live, work and raise families in communities all across the commonwealth, and they will continue to contribute to our communities, but they now will do it with the full rights of citizens.’
The socialist position upon all this is that we can fully expect sections of the ruling class to gerrymander elections to protect their interests but as long as the system is sufficiently democratic to provide a mandate from the majority and reflect the will of the majority then we will make use of what exists, warts and all.

Editorial: Heralding 1984 (1958)

Editorial from the February 1958 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Daily Herald, early in January, ran a series of articles by “experts” to answer the question whether 25 years ahead we shall be living in George Orwell’s nightmare, “with common man enslaved by the State” or will 1984 “be a year of dazzling brilliance of scientific promise—with common man enjoying the new fruits of the earth?” (Daily Herald, 6/1/58). Sir Miles Thomas foresees that travel will be faster, cheaper and safer. Sir Adolphe Abrahams does not think we shall have the 3½ minute mile; but football will still be the top national game, we shall still have the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race and the Cup Final will still be at Wembley. Jane Drew, “leading woman architect” thinks houses and streets will be more attractive, houses won’t be cold, and the “the TV set will take the place of the fireplace as the centre of the family circle.”

The Anti-Utopia Builders
Now the Herald is the organ of the Labour Party and claims to be socialist and the reader might well have expected to be told that 1984 would have seen the introduction of Socialism. The articles did not say that Socialism would be here or that it wouldn’t be here— the subject was just not mentioned. Several of the “experts” have either never heard of it at all, or, they think that it has nothing to do with their specialist subject; which goes to show just how little they know about Socialism.

In each of their supposedly isolated worlds the choice is between capitalism and socialism, there isn't any neutral no man's land. The kind of house you live in, the kind of vehicle you travel in and the kind of entertainment and sport you enjoy will depend on your position in society. If you are a wage-earner in a capitalist 1984 what you get will be what you can afford. All of this is a closed book to the Herald's writers and obviously doesn't have any importance for the Editor, or he would have directed his inquiries to the real question, whether Socialism will be here by then.

Capitalism, 1984 Variety
But one of the writers, Mr. Harry Nicholas, assistant secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, stands out from the rest, for he mentioned the word “socialist” His article, on the job situation, was the most deplorable of the lot. He answers the question very clearly, though without knowing he answers it. Capitalism it will be, with not a single essential feature altered. Not that Mr. Nicholas is pessimistic about it. He does not think “we will have any unemployment in the next 25 years, provided we have sanity in the financial sphere.” (He has clearly never examined the financial system if he thinks it isn't inherently idiotic). Automation, he says, will create jobs and markets. We shall be charitable and “in a good socialist way” we shall assist the backward countries and thus “create markets which will absorb the products of our industries” There will be fewer “'unskilled'” and more “skilled” workers, and higher standard rates of wages and less piecework. There will be more Company pension, sickness and other benefits to supplement the State schemes. Evidently Mr. Nicholas' optimism does not extend to the elimination of the wars that go with the struggle for markets. All he says in this field is that “because of the changes likely to take place in weapons of attack and defence, many of our Royal Ordnance factories and naval dockyards will have to be utilized for peacetime production.” He does not risk a forecast about the kind of weapons the other factories will be producing.

We may wind up by saying that while most of the contributions were useless, because the writers don't even know about the capitalist world we live in, Mr. Nicholas is pernicious as well because he has obviously heard about capitalism but sees no reason why or how or when it should be abolished: just like the Herald, and the Labour Party for which it speaks.